Smells like a blockbuster recipe

Nicholas Kharkongor focuses on food discrimination

Axone is a type of Naga pickle. It is as malodorous as it is popular. It is also the subject of director Nicholas Kharkongor’s latest eponymous film.
India’s diversity lies not only in creed, colour and religion but also in food. No doubt then that discrimination will also be discerned on all counts. And when it comes to food, the discrimination can be outrageous. Kharkongor chooses this to tell the story of northeasterners in mainland India.
The film is set in Delhi’s Humayunpur, a quintessentially north Indian locality that witnessed a substantial growth in population of youngsters coming from the North East.
“I stayed in the locality in the nineties. Northeasterners were always there in Delhi but their population increased after the economy boomed in the nineties. There are several restaurants (in the locality) selling northeastern delicacies. Also, the juxtaposition of population there is interesting. All these make the location interesting,” says the 45-year-old director.

Axone is about a group of young tenants in Humayunpur. They decide to prepare the pickle on the occasion of a friend’s wedding. However, the north Indian neighbours rain on their parade and deny them permission to prepare axone because of the pungent smell of fermented soybean, the main ingredient of the pickle. A chain of events follows and the director chooses comedy to tell the story of ‘a recipe for disaster’.
“Be it tungrymbai (another pickle popular in Meghalaya) or dry fish or any pungent smelling food, most northeasterners have faced this (food and other forms of discrimination) in other states and not just in Delhi. Only the degree of discrimination varies,” says the director.
Though Kharkongor chooses comedy to tell the story, he refers to the heinous side of the discrimination in the film as “I was there and saw it”. There is a mention of the case of Nido Tania, the student from Arunachal Pradesh who was beaten to death in the Capital in 2014. “We all woke up to the incident and I was part of the protests. I was deeply troubled and so were others. I wanted to, in some way, refer to the incident,” he says.
The film, though a light-hearted commercial of 100 minutes, exposes the discrimination in diversity and is a “very real piece of drama with many moments of comic situations but also many serious moments”. The subtlety is what one should look for. The film will be screened at BFI London Film Festival that begins on October 2. This will be followed by its Asia premiere at MAMI 2019, an IANS report quoted actress Sayani Gupta, who is playing a Nepali girl from Manipur in the film, as saying.
The trailer of the film available on YouTube has gone viral even in Shillong and “is also floating around in the interiors of Nagaland”.
“I did not expect the trailer to go viral… it is a good thing because it is a story about us,” Kharkongor asserts.
The release in India will take some time as it will travel to other festivals, he adds.
According to Kharkongor, another reason for him to do the film is to work with northeastern actors. The cast includes Vinay Pathak, Lin Laishram, Merenla Imsong, Lanuakum, an NSD alumnus, and Tenzing Dalha.
Axone is a completely different project from Kharkongor’s last film, Mantra. The director, who is based in Mumbai, was back in Shillong for writing the script. “I always wanted to tell stories of the people here. And this is an experience that most northeasterners have faced in other cities,” he says.
The location in the film also plays an important role. Kharkongor says he deliberately did not move out of Humayunpur, a middle class locality with the typical lanes and bylanes and the walled culture. “On one side there are the gullies and the bhaji wallahs and on the other there are these fashionable people from the North East… This juxtaposition was fascinating and I wanted to exploit that,” he explains.
The director says he was sceptical about the film as he did not want it to be a story about northeasterners told by another northeasterner and presenting Delhiites as a collective villain. “This would have defeated the purpose of the film. But it turned out to be a balanced movie.”
Axone is a better experience for the director because “things were more organised this time and there was fund”. He, however, admits that he would like to make films like Mantra.
Kharkongor narrates his experiences while talking about discrimination in the cities outside the North East. He says such incidents leave both men and women scarred.
“There was a time when people from the North East were seen as a benign minority. But as their population went up, locals started feeling that they were a threat and problems cropped up. In Delhi, the population of northeasterners is more but in Mumbai, it is less… and the reactions are also different,” he says.

Disappointment

Kharkongor is disappointed at the attitude of authorities back home. The director had approached people in power for fund in the state but nothing yielded result. “People gave excuses like the film does not concern a particular community or state. But they fail to understand that outside the North East, we are seen as northeasterners and not someone from a particular state. So a film on discrimination affects all of us here,” said the director and added in the same breath that he does not bear ill feelings now that the trailer has caught the attention of many people in the region.
Kharkongor is keen on making a Khasi film in Shillong but remains discreet about it. “I am not sure about anything. If things turn out well then I will think about the project but right now I am focusing on Axone.”
“I hope that people in the metropolises also watch this film. It is also for them because of the subtle discrimination that straddles the two ends of the spectrum,” he packs up for the time being.
~ NM